The press made the public believe that the most dangerous woman of the age was Eleanor Jarman, dubbed the Blonde Tigress.
Author Silvia Pettem takes us back to the 30s and describes the time, the crime scenes, the accomplices, and of course, Eleanor. She puts a magnifying glass to Eleanor’s life, relationships, trial for murder, and time in prison. In 1940, she escaped from prison and lived the rest of her life as perhaps, America’s longest-running female fugitive.
But was she as dangerous as they claimed?
Was she the mastermind behind crimes or was she an ordinary woman who got caught up in a crime spree?
This book is both a true crime novel, a mystery, part biography, but most importantly, it forces you to consider what is just, what it means to close the files, what is justice, and did the right people serve the appropriate sentences.
The best way to introduce you to Silvia Pettem‘s latest book is of course, in her own words.
Q & A with Silvia Pettem
author of IN SEARCH OF THE BLONDE TIGRESS: The Untold Story of Eleanor Jarman
- Who was Eleanor and why would someone want to read about her?
Eleanor was a single mom in Chicago during the Great Depression. She made some bad choices, got swept up in a crime spree, went to prison, and escaped in 1940. The rest of her life has been a mystery. True crime readers want to know more, i.e., what led up to her arrest, and what she may have done later in life.
- Why was Eleanor called the “blonde tigress?”
The Chicago newspapers, primarily the Chicago Tribune, often compared criminals to animals. Calling Eleanor the “blonde tigress” sold newspapers. Ironically, most of the black and white photos of her were taken during her trial, and her hair looks dark. That is because, before her arrest, she had dyed her hair red as a disguise.
- How did you get interested in Eleanor?
Actually, I was browsing on the Internet and found her story waiting to be told. Fleshing out Eleanor’s life seemed the ultimate challenge. I love research that takes me back in time.
- Back in time to when, and where?
Eleanor’s arrest was in Chicago, in 1933. In addition to the Great Depression, this was the era of gangsters and prohibitionists and at the height of a major crackdown on crime. Eleanor and her male partner were contemporaries of (but not as notorious as) outlaws Bonnie and Clyde. It was important to me to set Eleanor into the context of her times.
- Where did you get your information?
I started with newspaper reports, as they helped to establish a timeline and added color. But they often were incorrect and sensationalized. Then I did what I really enjoy –– I dug into primary sources such as police and court documents, including witness statements and trial transcripts. I felt as if I had a front-row seat in the courtroom.
- You include several chapters on the Oakdale Reformatory for Women, why?
I have always been fascinated with prisons, but I became even more interested when I discovered that the institution focused on helping inmates return to society rather than simply punishing them. Oakdale was very progressive for its time. Eleanor was an inmate for seven years. Again, I learned a lot from primary source documents, including prison records.
- How did Eleanor escape?
That is the easy part of her story. She and another inmate simply climbed over a 12-foot fence, changed into clothes they carried with them, and hitchhiked toward Chicago where they disappeared.
- Did you have any surprises in your research?
Yes. The first was the discovery of Eleanor’s former boyfriend who initially was mentioned in court testimony and then (unnamed) in a newspaper article. But, when I found his family’s correspondence buried in Eleanor’s prison file, it confirmed the close friendship between the man and Eleanor. The other surprise was the importance of genealogical research, especially probate records, in tying Eleanor to the alias provided (in 1994) by her family.
- What part of the book did you enjoy researching and writing the most?
The search, i.e., the research –– all of it –– kept me going. And, I had two fellow researchers to help me. Of course, it was a lot of fun to speculate on what Eleanor did after her escape.
- What’s the “take away” you want from your readers?
My hope is that readers will sympathize with her, as I did, and cheer her on during her years on the lam.
- Why would you sympathize with a criminal?
I believe Eleanor met the wrong people and was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Yes, she broke the law and was present during a murder, but she was not the killer. The press treated her unfairly, and her sentence of 199 years was too severe.
- Do you believe you found Eleanor?
If Eleanor’s family was correct as to the name of Eleanor’s alias, then I believe I have. If she lived out her life under another alias, then I hope my book will lead to her discovery.
- How can we find out if for sure?
The only way to make a positive identification would be to compare analyze the DNA in the grave of the alias with forensic genealogy, or by comparing the DNA in the grave with DNA of Eleanor’s descendants.
Since the name on the grave has no known family members, though, there is no family to give permission for an exhumation. I doubt if any judge would agree to one.
I like the sentiments of the newspaper columnist who wrote, “I keep hoping that she [Eleanor] got some good out of life… Goodnight, Eleanor Jarman, wherever you are.”
You may contact the author Silvia Pettem through her website at silviapettem.com
Note: I received the early version of this book as a PDF from the editor and later, a copy of the book from the publisher. I was asked to write an endorsement quote for Silvia’s book cover. Reading it was my pleasure.